I don’t like team sports; I tend to freeze whenever it’s my turn to act and I also feel like I’m going to be responsible for the team’s loss. Eventually I just accepted my uselessness in such activities and chose to avoid them altogether. I consciously try to not let my own preferences (and fears) pre-judge what my children can try out and enjoy. But I just couldn’t see what joining a children’s soccer (football) club could offer my autistic son either: He has co-ordination problems, he runs awkwardly (he has orthotics), he struggles with social situations, and verbal instructions can easily confuse and stress him. He’d stand out in a crowd and be an easy target for any group bullying. Sessions were organised by age group, and his abilities and development have never quite matched his age number.
Still, I’d been offered a free trial at a children’s soccer group, and I’d be there to watch him the whole time, so I put aside my nagging doubts and decided to take him along.
My son wasn’t the only person who learnt a thing or two that day.
I’d told the coaches in advance that my son was autistic. This didn’t scare them at all. (There are many other children’s activity groups I’d tried to enrol my son in in the past, who had either overtly or more subtly told me not to bring my son along because of his autism, so their open-ness to having him along, was both surprising and refreshing.) They told me he wouldn’t be pushed to do anything he didn’t want to; that their philosophy was “play, not push.” (Perhaps a purposeful juxtaposition to a very public national campaign by the Government a while back, called “Push Play.”)
It turns out that wasn’t a problem anyway:
My son actively and passionately took part in every activity the coaches took the kids through. The group was only about eight kids, which meant the two coaches were able to make sure every kid got a turn, including of course my son. Some of the activities were individual skills working alongside other kids, some were group games, none of it phased my son or sent him to me in tears. There was no bullying or targeting of weak kids, just inclusion and taking turns and encouragement.
I was almost in tears with happiness at the end of the first session, and my cheeks were sore from smiling so much.
When my son had first seen everyone else in uniforms at the start of the session, he made me assure him that he didn’t have to wear a uniform too. By the end, he was actively asking me if he could wear the uniform next time. That symbolises so much for me; that he felt like he belonged, and wanted to belong. That he wanted to do it all again.
There is another important aspect of taking part in the soccer club, that goes beyond the skills he learns and the sense of belonging, which any average kid can get (as valuable as those things are). For my son, he also gets the experience of being around children who have typical functioning, speech and developmental levels, since it is not an activity aimed principally at children with special needs (though it does welcome them). He’s around high needs children every single school day, and though he learns tremendous amounts from his highly skilled and dedicated specialist teaching team, there are certain aspects of social and language interactions that are best learnt from peers (and often more enjoyably learnt from peers). Being part of this group each weekend gives him that opportunity.
At the most recent session my son went to, I got to see how the coaches dealt with challenging behaviour, but the behaviour wasn’t from my son, it was from another little boy, who got upset and ran to his mum for comfort. The coaches didn’t make a big deal about it, they didn’t embaress or exclude the boy as would have been so easy to do. They seamlessly re-engaged him in the game they were playing at the time, encouraging and welcoming him back in to the group as if he’d perhaps just gone to get a drink or say hello to mum rather than gone crying to her. Within moments, the boy was happy and joining in again, and enjoyed the rest of the session. I don’t know what sort of training is done with these coaches, but clearly they’re doing something right.
(We’ve applied for special needs carer support Trust funding to pay for my son’s sessions at the soccer club (which we paid ourselves already, we’re looking for reimbursement); whether it will get approved or not is anyone’s guess, the Trust’s forms are notoriously hard to understand and fill out. If his special funding is approved I’ll add it in via an edit later, because I know people are always on the look out for appropriate and good ways to spend the allocated funding. Even if it doesn’t get approved, we’ve got our money’s worth.)
I’m not saying a kids’ soccer group is going to work for every autistic or special needs child, that’s clearly false. Just like horse-riding and trampolining and art is perfect for some of our kids, and painfully useless for others. But I am glad I kept an open-enough mind to let my son have a go, and to prove my concerns and anxieties to be misplaced: Sometimes it’s awesome to be wrong.
For those who want to perhaps see if it would suit their child, and want to know the name of this group that I am so impressed with, they’re called “Little Kickers.” The group we attended was here in New Zealand of course, but they operate in other countries too. If you’re worried about the fact that the sessions are split by age, or have other concerns, the people we dealt with at least were very accommodating and reassuring, even allowing my son to attend a younger age group if it turned out that’s where he was best suited. As it turned out his own age group was fine, and that seems to be partly a result of their willingness to accommodate a range of abilities rather than fixating on age as being determinate of what a child can and must do.
What my son gets from this soccer group is more than increased co-ordination, strength and balance (all of which are already showing in him). The “goal” is not just to get the soccer ball in a net on one side of the room. That is incidental. And that was what I had to learn too: Look past the obvious end point, enjoy the journey and the surprising lessons along the way.
Take your eye off the goal for a bit, and you might be surprised at what you find.